The people who live inside airplanes
(CNN) — After losing her home to a fire, Jo Ann Ussery had an odd idea: to live on an airplane.
She bought an old Boeing 727 headed for the scrapyard, had it shipped to property she already owned, and spent six months renovating it, doing most of the work herself. She ended up with a fully functional home with over 1,500 square feet of living space, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and even a hot tub – where the cockpit used to be. All for less than $30,000, or about $60,000 in today’s money.
Ussery — a beautician from Benoit, Mississippi — had no professional connection to aviation and followed the outlandish suggestion of her brother-in-law, an air traffic controller. She lived on the plane from 1995 to 1999 when it was damaged beyond repair after it fell from the truck that was taking it to another location nearby where it would have been open to the public.
While she wasn’t the first person to live on an airplane, her flawless execution of the project was inspiring. In the late 1990s, Bruce Campbell, an electrical engineer with a private pilot’s license, was impressed by their story: “I drove home and listened to music [the radio,] and they had Jo Ann’s story, and it was amazing that I didn’t stray off the road because I was totally focused on that. And the next morning I called,” he says.
A 727 in the forest
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do anything differently: “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, including the big one: working with a salvage company. If you avoid that and use superior transport logistics, the costs drop significantly,” he explains.
His project cost a total of US$220,000 (about US$380,000 in today’s value), about half of which was used to purchase the aircraft. He says the plane belonged to Olympic Airways in Greece and was even used to transport the remains of the airline’s magnate owner Aristotle Onassis in 1975: “I didn’t know the plane’s history at the time. And I didn’t know that it had an old 707-style interior. It was really really awful compared to modern standards. It was functional, but it just looked old and gross. Perhaps the worst choice for a home.”
As a result, Campbell had to work on the plane for a number of years before he could live on it. Interiors are unfussy, with a primitive shower made out of a plastic cylinder and a futon sofa for a bed. During the harshest part of winter, Campbell traditionally retires to Miyazaki, a city in southern Japan with subtropical weather, where he owns a small apartment. But the pandemic has made this difficult, and for the past three years he has lived year-round at the 727.
With intentions of bringing a plane home to Japan as well, he said he almost bought a second plane — a 747-400 — in 2018, but the deal fell through at the last minute because the airline (which Campbell won’t reveal) decided to keep the aircraft in service longer than planned: “We had to put the project on hold and that’s how it is today,” he says.
Joe Axline’s two planes: one to live in, one to renovate.
If you think life on an airplane is extravagant enough, how about life together? That’s the plan for Joe Axline, who owns an MD-80 and a DC-9 and sits side by side on a property in Brookshire, Texas. Axline has lived in the MD-80 for over a decade – after getting divorced on April 1, 2011 – and plans to renovate the DC-8 and add recreational areas like a movie theater and music room. He calls his big plan “Project Freedom”.
“I have less than a quarter of a million dollars for the whole project,” says Axline, who has very low running costs because he owns the land and built his own well and sewer system. “The only thing I have left is electricity have,” he adds.
For years he even shared the plane with his kids: “The kids are gone now so it’s just me. When you live in a house you have a lot of space, but it’s all wasted space. My master bedroom is 10 feet by 18 feet, which is not a bad size for a bedroom. I have two TVs in it, plenty of room to walk around. My living room is a good size, the dining room seats four, I can cook enough food for a whole group of people if they come over. I also have a shower and toilet so I don’t have to get off the plane to use the bathroom. The only thing I don’t have here, if I were in a house, are windows that open,” he explains, adding that he only opens the plane’s doors to let in fresh air.
The planes can be seen from nearby streets, and Axline says many drivers — piqued their curiosity — end up dropping by: “I have three or four people every day. I call them mine tourists,” he says. “They drive by and think it’s so cool. Most of the time I wave at them everywhere. I’ll say if you have some time I’ll give you a tour. And if I didn’t make the bed that day, who cares? Let’s see how real people live.”
Jumbo Stay is a hotel at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm.
Courtesy of Jumbo Stay
However, if you want to leave the transitional accommodation behind and really take off in the fuselage, you have to be ready for a challenge: “You have to have the desire to want that because there are going to be so many problems, you have to expect that it can be overwhelming,” says Joe Axline, who lists obtaining the right airframe and finding a suitable location as one of the biggest hurdles.
That’s perhaps why several visitors to Bruce Campbell over the years have expressed interest in embracing this lifestyle, but none have ever made the dream a reality: “I think it’s quite difficult for people: some of mine Guests are convinced that they wanted to do it and I sent them articulated instructions to help them step by step, but none have gained momentum,” he says.
But don’t let that discourage you, Campbell adds: “My number one piece of advice is to do it. Don’t let anyone shake you.